In the final workshop of last term I was asked The Question. It was one of the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA students, Alex Petropoulos, who asked it.
Come on, tell us what we really want to know – tell us The Secret.
I was really on the spot. Did I know The Secret? Had anyone ever whispered it to me? Had I discovered it for myself?
I had a moment to reduce everything to one word, to see if I knew The Secret.
The answer to the question, How can I write better? behind which is the bigger question, How can I get to be a great writer? behind with is the even bigger question, How does anyone get to be a great writer?
The word I said, in reply to Alex and the rest of those listening in Room 219, Westminster Kingsway, was Humility.
This is not the word I’d have said before writing Patience. I would have chosen another word. It might have been stubbornness – something lighter, less of a virtue.
But I thought about it afterwards. A lot. Humility was the word I’d chosen, in some panic, but instead of saying Humility, I might have said Egolessness or Self-absence. Humility suggests itself as a virtue of character. And character may be the problem.
I could also have said you need Patience. But there’s no humility without patience and there’s no patience without humility.
Writers begin in vanity. I want to write. I want to be known as a writer. I want to be known as having written X. And vanity recurs all the time. But the sentence is a lonely place. Being vain, by yourself, is a humiliation. You can dress up for the party all you like, but if there’s no party – because no-one has invited you – your evening is going to be a quickslide into depression and self-hate. Self-hate is just as bad for writing as self-love.
I began in vanity. I want to be a writer. I want to be known as a writer. I want to be known as having written X or Y great work. My name is an aptonym, fitting for what I came to do: I wanted To Be Lit, to be literature. It’s only over the years of attempting this that I’ve been moralized by this vocation, brought unwillingly to humility.
‘All travel is a form of gradual self-extinction,’ said Shiva Naipaul, in The Enigma of Arrival. I would hijack and repurpose this. ‘All writing is a form of gradual self-extinction.’ Nowadays, I care much less that I am recognised as the writer of X or Y, and much more that X or Y has somehow – through me – come into existence.
Understand, I’m not claiming literary sainthood. I lie awake and compose acceptance speeches for prizes I will never win. I reject honours that will never be offered to me. I accept the awed congratulations of contemporaries the literary world worships – in my vanity, they whisper to me (at their own launch parties) how much better than them I am. But I know that’s all rubbish. Utter rubbish. A burlesque the ego puts on to get itself off.
Writing towards this – towards the prize or the congratulations – would be pointless. It would stop you achieving the very thing you wanted to achieve.
In August this year a book is going to be published by Galley Beggar Press. It’s a novel, title Patience. I was lucky enough to be the person to write it.
I think it’s the best thing I’ve written – because I didn’t write alone.
I don’t usually try to teach you to write like I do. But today, for once in a decade, I will.
Why? For the simple reason that I would like to try to share with you what I learned from being there at the writing of Patience – the most obvious being, patience. That’s something we all need to learn, and constantly re-learn, moment by moment.
In sharing what I learned, I am sometimes not going to be speaking sensibly or rationally. Not today. Why that is will become clear. I’m not always going to be saying the immediately or easily sayable. Instead I’m going to talk about what has worked for me – in writing this one book – and about what I’ve come to recognise, often against my will. I will be doing this from an unusual viewpoint: looking out from the writing, not looking in at the writing from outside.
I don’t know about yours, but my desk is a treacherous, superstitious, magical and humbling place.
I don’t know about your writing, from the point view of your desk; I can tell you about the writing of Patience, from the point of view of mine.
I made the first note of an idea on March 5th 2007. I had recently seen a photography exhibition, a retrospective of work by Timm Rautert, in Leipzig. A couple of the photographs moved me a great deal. They were from a series, ‘The Children of Ward 5, 1974.
One in particular showed a group of children, all very separate from one another, on a long corridor.
What I wrote was, at first, an entry into this space.
Kurt was staring through his wardrobe, making noises that meant ships were about to land on the shore of his land – which he and only he could see when staring through the blank wooden side of his wardrobe. That was Kurt and it was a good idea not to mock his obsession, for if you did he would try to bite through your neck until your head fell off and rolled down the corridor, because it was on a slight gradient, towards one of the punishers-who-waited. They waited and we waited too, but in a different way. Often some of us, the ones with spines to one side, were strapped to our favourite chairs all day long. Of course because of who we are we do-not-did-not get to choose our favourite chairs. It is lucky for us that the punishers-who-unexpectedly-descend know us better than we know ourselves. We have dreams of outside; exchanging reports on its peculiarities… The summer was hot without the windows open so our noises, which many would take for screams of escape, could not be heard by the decent. Often, we shat our pants and were left in it as a punishment not to shit our pants because, if we do, we will be left in it as a punishment for shitting our pants. This, we understand quite clearly. The feet of the punishers-who-are-kind can be heard arriving like panicked birds, which is the cry that goes up from us in response. We car-car-car-car, and are told stop. Always whatever we are doing we are told stop. If you are sitting strapped into a chair, your favourite, how can you stop doing that if that is all you are doing and all you have been doing since morning. So, we decided that together we would visit Kurt’s land for an adventure and because it would make Kurt go mad enough to shit himself and so be punished, which we wanted to see. At night, we lined up and told eachother what grunted tales we could… We look from the higher windows towards the playground where, dependent on their handicaps, footballers try to arrange fair sides but always disagree because someone must lose.
This voice – much less cruel, much more in love with the world and the people in it – would become Elliott, the main character and narrator of the completed novel Patience. Elliott has cerebral palsy and can only move his right hand, very slightly.
I wrote these pages, then I put them aside. I only began writing the novel with something like full attention in December 2016. Before this, between 2007 and 2016, I’d had many failed goes. I had told myself, again and again, not to write it. That I couldn’t write it. That I shouldn’t write it. Even when it got moving, there were long gaps between drafts. I finished the novel in Spring 2017. I revised it in January 2018, during my Hawthornden Fellowship. I didn’t look at it again until I went back to the proofs in January 2019. That’s about twelve years between having the first idea and finishing the book.
This is as patient as I get.
A great deal of industry goes into demystifying writing. Twitter is full of wordcounts and exortations. Writing is called a ‘routine’ or a ‘process’.
We do a lot of demystification, in the workshops at Birkbeck. And I’m not intending to undo this now, to re-mystify writing for mystification’s sake. But, when I think about it away from the workshop, away from being a tutor, I see there is vast amount of mystery around and within writing, and how writing happens, and how writing happens when it happens at its highest levels. (I believe there are levels.)
Most of the time, it wouldn’t do any good – wouldn’t do you any good – to speak of writing as a mystery or a magic. That might situate Writers, capital W, within an ivory tower within an inner circle, then give you no clue how to enter the circle, and no key to the slippery white building. And writing is absolutely not a high thing. It’s in no way about being above or removed, it’s about being within – as far within as you can go, travelling via language.
However, writing itself – the moment of writing – is mysterious. And when it starts to turn out better than ever seemed possible, there is something more than unlikely or surprising about that.
There is something for which the word magic – with all its embarrassing associations – seems to be the best fit. Because when the writing is going brilliantly, the writer alone at her desk isn’t alone at her desk. The writer is able to write with more than her own individual powers. What she can bring to bear on the point of her pencil or pen, or the pixels on her laptop, is a language (or more than one language), is a lineage (or more than one lineage), is a culture (or more than one culture). The writer can write with the help of the whole world.
But this help is extremely fitful for a writer who hasn’t written a great deal beforehand. By fitful, I mean, this magic assistance may happen to her for a couple of sentences per season – a paragraph a year. Almost, but not quite, by accident.
The way I developed, during the years I was trying to get good as a writer (or, to stop being actively bad as a writer) was something like this: I would write lots of poems or paragraphs that had nothing about them, and then something would come along that was on a different level.
That there are levels is, I think, demonstrated by AlphaZero – the AI that learned to be the greatest chess playing entity ever, by playing itself, millions of times, for about four hours. It’s based just beside St Pancras. You can go and stand outside the glass building.
(Stockfish was previously the strongest chess engine. Both could beat any human. The current world champion Magnus Carlsen’s Elo rating is currently close to 2900 – which could be unprecedented.)
I could give you details of these mini-epochs or uplifts in my own writing history, quote a poem or some lines, but it wouldn’t mean anything to you. They are private breakthroughs. What I want to talk about is what happened after them, each time – which is that I wasn’t immediately a better writer who always wrote on that higher level. (I hope this is reassuring to you.) I wasn’t generally better, I was, instead, a confused and disappointed writer who didn’t understand why I couldn’t just continue writing on that higher level. Instead of being immediately better, I was frequently worse – because I overstrained to get back to where I’d reached. It would usually take me a couple of years to catch up with myself. This seems to be the rhythm of my development: struggle, outdo, struggle, outdo, struggle, outdo. But for every single time I say outdo, I should say struggle many more times.
When I am starting a new writing workshop, I say two things: There are no short cuts and There are no wasted hours.
There are no short cuts –
because you have to go through everything you have to go through, in order to get better. You cannot bring the moments of outdoing yourself on any faster by trying to cut out stages in-between. You have to walk every step of the way. You can’t fly. You can’t get an uber. You have to walk. And it’s up-hill all the way.
(You might be thinking, Why do a creative writing course? Isn’t that an attempt at a short cut? I have thought about this. Truthfully, I have been anxious about it. Am I hothousing? But I don’t think taking a creative writing course is a shortcut. What it is, instead, is a more intense effort. By writing within a workshop, more weaknesses and more strengths in your own writing are brought to your attention more quickly and more clearly than they would have been had you been writing by yourself. It’s unlikely that, by yourself, you would get such a sense of the success and failure of your storytelling voice as you do from listening in on a serious, focussed discussion of your story or novel chapter. There are no short cuts on a creative writing course, because you still have to go through everything you have to go through, but you do it faster, in quicker succession, and with someone who has guided lots of people on their way along that bit of the path, up that bit of the mountainside.)
There are no wasted hours –
because when you put in the effort of reading, re-reading, writing and rewriting, it benefits you eventually. What’s confusing is, it may not benefit you immediately or in a way that you ever understand. If you struggle and struggle, and fail and fail, writing this particular thing over here, again and again, you will – one day – be able to write that thing over there if not easily then with a certain authority. And sometimes the new story will come so easily it’s as if it had already been written, and all you had to do is transcribe it. Don’t ask me why. It’s a mystery.
But I’m not going to leave this mystery completely mysterious. I’m going to give you a concrete example. I’ve already shown you Timm Rautert’s photographs. This is something quite different – but I think it’s important that writers don’t just learn from writers. They need to learn from all the other arts – from dance, from comics, from symphonies. From ceramics, from video games. And in this case from rock’n’roll.
It’s Monday, July 5th 1954. 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee.
Elvis Presley, goofing off, turning ‘That’s Alright, Mama’ into something it hadn’t quite been in Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s version.
This is the birth of rock’n’roll. I think rock’n’roll is very important, aesthetically. It’s one of the things, the qualities, twentieth century music (particularly black music) brought to art – like swing, soul, funk. Rock’n’roll is the sound of someone being completely in control at the same time as being completely out of control. It’s very like the best writing. It’s like writing with self-absence.
Elvis Presley’s best biographer, Peter Guralnick, is aware he’s allegorizing the moment of this creation even as he goes back to it in a documentary way. Guralnick’s return to Ezra Pound’s words ‘make it new’ is self-conscious. It’s an indication that this is a modern artform that’s about to burst into being.
..everybody showed up around 7:00.
(Everybody is – from left to right – Elvis Presley, Bill Black Jnr, the bassist, Scotty Moore, the guitarist, and Sam Philips, the record producer and owner of Sun Records.)
There was some derisory small talk, Bill and Scotty joked nervously among themselves, and Sam tried to make the boy [Elvis] feel at ease… At last, after a few minutes of aimless chatter and letting them all get a little bit used to being in the studio, Sam turned to the boy and said, “Well, what do you want to sing?”… they finally settled on “Harbour Lights,” which had been a big hit for Bing Crosby in 1950, and worked it through to the end, then tried Leon Payne’s “I Love You Because,” a beautiful country ballad that had been a number-one country hit for its author in 1949… They tried up to a dozen takes, running through the song again and again – sometimes the boy led off with several bars of whistling, sometimes he simply launched into the verse. The recitation altered each time that he repeated it, but each time he flung himself into it, seemingly trying to make it new. Sometimes he simply blurted out the words, sometimes his singing voice shifted to a thin, pinched, almost nasal tone before returning to the high, keening tenor in which he sang the rest of the song – it was as if, Sam thought, he wanted to put everything he had ever known or heard into one song. And Scotty’s guitar part was too damn complicated, he was trying too damn hard to sound like Chet Atkins, but there was that strange sense of incommunicable desire in the voice, there was emotion being communicated.
Sam sat in the control room, tapping his fingers absentmindendly on the console. All his attention was focussed on the studio, on the interaction of the musicians, the sound they were getting, the feeling that was behind the sound…
For Elvis it seemed like it had been going on for hours, and he began to get the feeling that nothing was ever going to happen. When Mr. Phillips had called, he had taken the news calmly to begin with, he had tried to banish all thoughts of results or consequences, but now it seemed as if he could think of nothing else. He was getting more and more frustrated, he flung himself desperately into each new version of “I Love You Because,” trying to make it live, trying to make it new, but he saw his chances slipping away as they returned to the beginning of the song over and over again with numbing familiarity…
Finally they decided to take a break – it was late, and everybody had to work the next day. Maybe they ought to just give it up for the night, come back on Tuesday and try it again. Scotty and Bill were sipping Cokes, not saying much of anything, Mr. Phillips was doing something in the control room, and, as Elvis explained it afterward, “this song popped into my mind that I had heard years ago, and I started kidding around with [it].” … The song was “That’s All Right [Mama],” an old blues number by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.
“All of a sudden,” said Scotty, “Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open – I don’t know, he was either editing some tape, or doing something – and he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.’
Sam recognized it right away… They worked on it. They worked hard on it, but without any of the laboriousness that had gone into the efforts to cut “I Love You Because.” Sam tried to get Scotty to cut down on the instrumental flourishes – “Simplify, simplify!” was the watchword… [Sam] was delighted with the rhythmic propulsion Bill Black brought to the sound. It was a slap beat and a tonal beat at the same time… And yet that wasn’t it either – it was the chemistry. There was Scotty, and there was Bill, and there was Elvis scared to death in the middle, “but sounding so fresh, because it was fresh to him.”
They worked on it over and over, refining the song, but the center never changed. It always opened with the ringing sound of Elvis’ rhythm guitar, up till this moment almost a handicap to be gotten over. Then there was Elvis’ vocal, loose and free and full of confidence, holding it together. And Scotty and Bill just fell in with an easy, swinging gait that was the very epitome of what Sam had dreamt of but never fully imagined. The first time Sam played it back for them, “we couldn’t believe it was us,” said Bill. “It just sounded sort of raw and ragged,” said Scotty. “We thought it was exciting, but what was it? It was just so completely different. But it just really flipped Sam – he felt it really had something. We just sort of shook our heads and said, “Well, that’s fine, but good God, they’ll run us out of town!’” And Elvis? Elvis flung himself into the recording process. You only have to listen to the tape to hear the confidence grow. By the last take (only two false starts and one complete alternate take remain), there is a different singer in the studio than the one who started out the evening – nothing had been said, nothing had been articulated, but everything had changed.
(This is from Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, pg 93-96)
The next night everyone came to the studio, but nothing much happened. They tried a number of different songs… but nothing really clicked, and both that evening and the next were spent in more or less getting to know one another musically.
[Same book, pg 96]
It is worth your going back over this, when you have a moment, looking at the stages of creation. Struggle, outdoing.
One thing is certain. Watching yourself writing is not the way to write well. Being present yourself – as the socially aspirant you who is here, listening to me, the socially aspirant me – being present in the moment of writing as your social self will harm the writing. The best writing happens when you are self-absent. (‘We couldn’t believe it was us,’ said Bill Black.)
And yes, it is a paradox that the most personal expression happens when your attempt is not to express what you want to express but when you get yourself out of the way and let the writing say what the writing itself seems to want to say.
This may be simply a way of expressing how you deal with your unconscious. Your unconscious, remember, is not your subconscious – with which you have some parley. Your unconscience is uncontactable. It exists incommunicado.
Your unconscious doesn’t speak to you, although it acts through you. It never speaks directly, but it does sometimes, I think, let the subconscious overhear it speaking to itself.
Things – words, experiences – need to have gone deeply in to you for them to come out in a way that is resonant. For this, there are no short cuts. You can fake it, but it will remain fake – detectable in a moment. There’s no hurrying this introduction of stuff to the deep. And there’s no controlling it. You can’t say to yourself, ‘I’d like to have this obsession.’ You can affect it. You can magically think it. But your obsessions were formed before you were an adult.
I will tell you about one of my obsessions, because it is relevant to Patience, and because it may help you think about your own obsessions. This is not the origin of the obsession, but it’s what I look back on as an originary moment. I was at a wedding. The first wedding I’d ever attended. I was eight or nine years-old. A church wedding. In the churchyard was a high stone wall. It went up and over a doorway. After drinking as many Britvik miniatures as I could, during the wedding reception, I escaped outside into the sun, and set myself the task of getting up onto the wall and climbing over the little humped bridge of it, and I fell off. I fell on my back. I snapped my spine. For minutes, I couldn’t move, and for hours, I couldn’t breathe. I looked up through the branches of the tree at the white sky and waited to die. Because I knew I was dead. But I didn’t die. I took a difficult breath. I was winded. It turned out I’d been something called ‘winded’. But I didn’t know at the time that’s what was happening. Instead I knew, for certain, that I would never take another breath. My body could no longer fight its way through to the air all around me. And after I breathed, I moved. I succeeded in moving my hands in a controlled way. And then my legs. My spine wasn’t snapped. I’d been winded. I’d had a fall. Sit up. Get your breath back, lad. You’ll be fine in a moment.
In a moment.
In many ways, I am still there – in that moment. The moment I lay suffocating to death, paralysed. The moment before I died. I want to emphasize: it wasn’t the moment I thought I was suffocating, thought I was paralysed, because during that moment – which still continues – it was the whole truth. I was just dying. I would never breathe. I would never move.
As I consciously understand myself, this is the origin of my obsession with suffocation and paralysis. But who knows, it may have been the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck in the womb, or whilst I was being born, or something later, some obscure realisation of death.
I have written many times about being paralysed, directly and indirectly. In deadkidsongs, to cite one example, I gave a character called Paul a scene of falling out of a tree, being winded and thinking he’s dying.
Paralysis is in every line of Patience. It’s there all the way through – all the time.
I have written about bad writing. It was given as a summer lecture, about ‘Sensibility’. And excerpted on the Guardian website as ‘What makes bad writing bad‘. The lecture also contained what I could say about mediocre writing and great writing. I ended, slightly mystifyingly, by suggesting the writers – the students present in the room – examine their relationship to time.
‘Examine your unique relation to time and examine how you express it in words.’
When I said this, wrote it, I didn’t really understand it. I just knew it was what I wanted to say. But I think that subsequently other artists and philosophers have given me a way to get there. The film director’s Werner Herzog’s definition of ‘ecstatic truth’, and the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s writings in Being and Time and Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) have given me a catch-up way to understand what I was saying. This, I think, is The Secret. Humility. Or, as I’m refining it now Alex isn’t putting me on the spot, the willingness to practice the discipline of writing until you can achieve self-absence.
This is also the reason I chose the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s 1973 novella Agua Viva as the reading for this lecture.
I’m not going to do a close reading of it. I hope most of you have had a chance to look at the novella, and so have seen what Lispector’s project is. She doesn’t hide it – she states what she’s after on the very first page. She wants to examine her relation to time, to what she calls ‘this instant-now’:
Let me tell you: I’m trying to seize the fourth dimension of this instant-now so fleeting that it’s already gone because it’s already become a new instant-now that’s also already gone. Every thing has an instant in which it is. I want to grab hold of the is of the thing. These instants passing through the air I breathe: in fireworks they explode silently in space. I want to possess the atoms of time. (Agua Viva, pg3)
And she wants to examine how she expresses this moment-now in words:
I want to write to you like someone learning. I photograph each instant. I deepen the words as if I were painting, more than an object, its shadow. (pg8)
And in order to do this, she will write in an amazingly brave and free way:
And if I often paint caves that is because they are my plunge into the earth, dark but haloed with brightness, and I, blood of nature – extravagant and dangerous caves, talisman of the Earth, where stalactites, fossils and rocks come together, and where the animals made by their own malign nature seek refuge. The caves are my hell. Forever dreaming cave with its fogs, memory and longing? eerie, esoteric, greenish with the slime of time. Inside the dark cave glimmer the hanging rats with the cruciform wings of bats. I see downy and black spiders. Mice and rats run frightened along the ground and up the walls. Between the rocks the scorpion. Crabs, just like themselves since prehistory, through deaths and births, would look like threatening beasts if they were the size of a man. Old cockroaches crawl in the murky light. And all of this is me. All is weighted with sleep when I paint a cave or write to you about it – from outside it comes the clatter of dozens of wild horses stamping with dry hooves the darkness, and from the friction of the hooves the rejoicing is freed in sparks: here I am, I and the cave, in the very time that will rot us. (pg 8-9)
I think this is an example of Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’.
Werner Herzog is one of my few living artistic idols. In his ‘Minnesota Declaration’, he wrote about the difference between facts and ecstatic truth:
- Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.
- There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.
Herzog has said elsewhere –
- If we are paying attention about facts, we end up as accountants. If you find out that yes, here or there, a fact has been modified or has been imagined, it will be a triumph of the accountants to tell me so. But we are into illumination for the sake of a deeper truth, for an ecstasy of truth, for something we can experience once in a while in great literature and great cinema. I’m imagining and staging and using my fantasies. Only that will illuminate us. Otherwise, if you’re purely after facts, please buy yourself the phone directory of Manhattan. It has four million times correct facts. But it doesn’t illuminate.
(‘Werner Herzog Is Still Breaking the Rules’. Interview by Mekado Murphy, The New York Times, JULY 1, 2007)
This is Herzog’s definition of the difference between truth and ecstatic truth: the latter is revelation rather than realisation, magic rather than the mundane.
The etymology of ecstasy is ‘outside standing’ – ek-stasis, from the Greek – standing outside oneself, standing outside the something that was oneself and may become oneself again, standing outside being, standing outside time.
Heidegger establishes in Being and Time how da-sein, how you (in other words), is a time-being. A being thrown into time, towards death. In order to write ec-statically, standing outside social time, you need to cease existing within a concensus version of temporality. (Heidegger calls this concensus Das Man.) You need to stop being the time-being you usually represent yourself as being. How is this possible? In the performing musician’s case, through greater involvement with the grain of the sound of their instrument, with the space they’re in, with the moment they’re in, with the other musicians they’re playing with. In the writer’s case, through language. You’re not principally being a being when you’re becoming a sentence. Of course you’re still physically there in the room, as someone who would answer to your name if someone shouted it, and you’re present as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and oxygen atoms, but as much of you as possible – in terms of consciousness – has absented itself into pure concentration upon the object you’re attempting to make, or that – magically – seems to be attempting to make itself. This is why composing musicians speak of themselves not writing the song but being there – luckily – to overhear the song that was already there in the air.
One way of looking at this is as the kind of self-deluded nonsense artists come out with; another is as a ruthless ascetic practice of self-absencing at the moment of art-creation.
Here’s a famous example. ‘Yesterday’. The most covered song in history.
This is a clip of Paul McCartney offhandedly explaining how he wrote it, whilst steering a boat.*
‘I couldn’t of written it, cos I just dreamed it, you know? You don’t get that lucky.’
So, Paul McCartney woke up with a tune in his head that he called ‘Scrambled Eggs’*:
Oh my baby, how I love your legs…
Let’s then go back to before then. The night before. And let’s have Paul McCartney lying awake in his little top room, with the piano, thinking this:
I, Paul McCartney, one half of the great songwriting partnership Lennon-McCartney, whose fans around the world are desperate for new material, need to write a great song tomorrow. How can I force myself, Paul McCartney, to do that? How can I write a great song? How can anyone write a great song? What’s the secret?
Would this worry have worked out? Absolutely not. Would McCartney have written anything? No. He wouldn’t have. He couldn’t have. He’d have been too self-present. ‘Yesterday’ wouldn’t have occurred to him. In many of his later songs, there’s far too much Paul and heaps too much McCartney. And, you might say, not enough Lennon. And I’m saying this as a big fan.
To put this directly, and hopefully usefully for you, after this talk of Heidegger and Herzog: Thinking you’re not responsible for the writing, that the writing is there waiting to be written, pre-existent in a correct form, may be nonsense but it may be necessary nonsense, it may be very practical nonsense.
Other writers have said the same thing.
Here’s Deborah Levy, being interviewed in 2016:
What one thing would you advise to all aspiring writers?
Write something you don’t fully understand and then spend the next few years writing your way to a better understanding of your intentions and literary purpose.
Flannery O’Connor said in ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’:
No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.
John Gardner, in On Becoming a Novelist, said:
In some apparently inexplicable way the mind opens up; one steps out of the world. One knows one was away because of the words one finds on the page when one comes back, a scene or a few lines more vivid and curious than anything one is capable of writing – though there they stand… All writing requires at least some measure of trancelike state. (pg 56-57)
All I myself know for sure, when I come out of one of these trance moments, is that I seem to have been taken over by some muse. Insofar as I’m able to remember what happened, it seems to be that it was this: for a moment the real process of our dreams has been harnessed. The magic key goes in, all the tumblers fall at once and the door swings open. (pg 60-61)
The magic key! Magic is nonsense. Of course – we all know that. But think it this way: sense is what we know, and what we commonly know. Good sense is common sense. It’s the sense of Heidegger’s Das Man. What we know already is what we can call up at any moment, and express readily. I would say that only what goes beyond this and risks being nonsensical at the point of first utterance – scrambled eggs, the cave paragraph I just read from Agua Viva – can be a new thing.
Although irrational, this isn’t an outrageous claim I’m making. Ask an anthropologist. I would say that much of human culture originates from and depends upon the achievement of ek-static states. The shaman becoming a lizard, the Aboriginal People walking their dreamings into existence across what was later called Australia, Dante envisioning Hell and Purgatory and Paradise.
The secret within the secret is – How can you have any aesthetic control over what is produced during these trance states? Why is it not nonsense? To which I’d have to answer that I have a whole other lecture I’d like to deliver, but haven’t time to, about how the Romantic poets – particularly Keats – seem to have gone at this question very directly. And Keats’s answer, put in a nutshell, is that (just like an improvising musican) you get very good at being ecstatic by practising in-the-moment/out-of-the-moment writing all the time. You do it in speech, in occasional poems, in letters, in rough drafts. Most writing is a getting ready for writing.
This approach is Romantic, and problematic, but it’s also a better praxis – I’d say – than that offered by later generations of writers. It’s better than twitter and wordcounts and 100 submissions per year will offer you.
A recent review by Colin Burrow, in the London Review of Books, made a similar point. Burrow was reviewing reprints of works by the poet Robert Graves, and he quoted Graves’ The White Goddess:
In our sober and unpoetic age one might feel a twinge of nostalgia for a period in which it was possible to write sentences like this:
Poetry began in the matriarchal age, and derives its magic from the moon, not from the sun. No poet can hope to understand the nature of poetry unless he has had a vision of the Naked King crucified to the lopped oak, and watched the dancers, red-eyed from the acrid smoke of the sacrificial fires, stamping out the measure of the dance, their bodies bent uncouthly forward, with their monotonous chant of: ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ and ‘Blood! Blood! Blood!’
(‘Adjusting the Mechanism’, Colin Burrow, LRB, 11 October 2018, pg 31)
I think it’s worth asking whether we are actually an unpoetic age, or one that consistently lies about just how poetic – and atavistic – it is.
There is, yes, an obverse to this. There is an Apollonian artistic tradition, counter to the Dionysian. You may very well be part of it. There’s Alexander Pope (I love Pope) saying:
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d…
‘An Essay on Criticism’, lines 296-297
This is the poetry of Heidegger’s Das Man. There is satire, social satire. There is carefully plotted crime fiction. There is the conscious manipulation of a successful, existing genre. Novels, short stories, can be this – of course they can. Of course of course.
I don’t want to write ecstatic truth, you say to me. I just want to be published – I – me – with my name, so my friends and family congratulate me and my enemies can envy me.
Fine. This can be done. I’ll go back to teaching you how to do this tomorrow, and for the rest of the year.
But I have surprised myself with what I have learned, over the years of writing. And most recently in the writing of Patience. I have ended up crediting things I wouldn’t want to have credited – because they seem a bit hippy.
I used to hate musicians saying they weren’t responsible for the songs they wrote. ‘Yesterday’ is unmistakably a McCartney song – because it’s like other songs no-one but McCartney wrote.
But I’ve come to see some of these swerves as necessary, because I wrote what I think is my best work whilst making one of them.
The Chicken Crossing the Road
As a writer, I used to be terrified by a couple of thoughts. The first was something I’d heard said. It went like this: A real writer can describe a chicken crossing the road in an original way. I tried to do this. I sat down and described the chicken. And of course I did this without ever going and taking a close look at a real chicken on a real road. I did this before ever looking at anything properly intensely poetically closely. Today, the challenge of this sentence seems much less daunting. Because I know it’s not about the chicken and the syntax. It’s not about finding a new sentence structure to say the same thing as ‘the chicken crossed the road’ for the sake of a new sentence structure.
I know that, if I sat down to write something, it wouldn’t do the job. But I also know that, if Elliott, the narrator of Patience, had needed to describe a chicken crossing a road he would have done it in a satisfyingly original way. It wouldn’t have been my way, but I would have written it.
The Great Stories
The second thing that terrified me was the idea of writing my own version of one of the great stories. For example, my own version of Antigone or of the Life of Jesus. What could I possibly say that wasn’t something trivial about branding and a halo of social media? Again, I’m less scared of this now because I think Elliott’s story, of yearning and bafflement, of confinement and escape, is one of the great essential stories. I don’t mean it’s my great story. I mean it’s one of the great stories that is available to anyone.
I think that, in writing Patience, I was more often than not self-absent. More present was the narrator, Elliott. His rhythms, sensibility, opinions – his virtue of patience, which I could not hope to approach, his adoration of the fallen world, his love of Christmas – these dominate and make the book.
So I think Patience is the best thing I’ve written, but I feel less responsible for it than just about anything else I’ve done. Congratulations, if there are any, should be forwarded to my narrator, and to the ecstatic version of the English language he uses.
Let’s go back to The Secret. I’m sure you’re ahead of me.
The answer to the question, How can I write better? behind which is the bigger question, How can I get to be a great writer?
The answer is –
You, as you, can’t.
Your body can be present when it’s happening, and you can take credit for it afterwards, but whoever or whatever does the better writing has to be better than merely you. Better than Paul McCartney, better than Clarice Lispector, better than John Keats, better than anyone you care to mention.
If you want to be a better writer, just get over yourself – really, get over yourself.
If you want to be a great writer, become great at getting over yourself.
Self-love. Personal ambition. Ego is what stops most people from writing better. They believe their writing should say what they consciously want it to say, and their words should behave as they bloody well want them to behave. If I put you there, you will stay there, understand me? Poets suffer less from this desire to nail down sentences like planks of wood. When a poet is patted on the back for writing a particular poem, it’s always the wrong back that’s struck. The wrong coat, too.
If you want to make better work immediately, stop being you. Be the work itself. Be the work itself more of the time. And the work is reading and re-reading just as much as it is writing and re-writing.